From the opening scenes of FIERCE PEOPLE (an interplay of tribal customs as photographed by the anthropologist father of the young narrator Finn Earl, demonstrating why this South American tribe of Ishkanani is so fierce) the direction of the film is nebulous: are we watching a dark comedy about comparing life in the New York streets to uncivilized peoples, or is this a message film of a more serious intent? But as the story develops this fine line between entertainment and philosophical impact becomes increasingly clear. Griffin Dunne's direction of Dirk Wittenborn's adaptation of his novel may be a bit careless at times as it strays from rational plot development, but in the end there is a strong enough final impact to patch up the holes he created.
Our narrator Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin) lives with his coke-addicted masseuse/sexually obsessed mother Liz (Diane Lane) in New York, waiting for the summer when he is to join his anthropologist father on a field trip to South America (a father he knows only from letters and videos), when a drug bust abruptly changes their lives: one of Liz's wealthy clients Ogden Osborne (Donald Sutherland) rescues the down and out family and moves them to his ten acre estate, the epitome of wealth and power. In exchange for being Osborne's private masseuse, Liz and Finn can live in the mansion with the 'filthy rich' Osbornes - daughter Mrs. Langley (Elizabeth Perkins) and grandchildren Bryce (Chris Evans) and Maya (Kristen Stewart). Osborne and his physician lead Liz on the drying out path and Finn bonds with Osborne and his grandchildren, and despite the disparity in poor versus wealthy, the living situation works - for a while. Incidents occur to alter feelings and Finn is attacked and raped by a masked assailant, a turning point for the film and Finn's view of the Osborne family. Osborne reveals his past to Finn and together they manage to discover the truth about Finn's troubling incident - and also about the fierce disease of the wealthy class.
The film uses many clips of tribal activity during the film, drawing some disturbing parallels for some of the more challenging scenes. For this viewer that works well, but when the director elects to place tribal individuals in full regalia within the context of the Osborne estate, the concept feel contrived, as though the audience has to be forced to 'get it'. The various subplots between maid Jilly (Paz de la Huerta) and Finn and the introduction of an obese retarded chalk artist Whitney (Branden Williams) push the credibility edge of emphasizing the line between the wealthy and the 'lower class', but the performances by Sutherland, Lane, and Yelchin are strong enough to make us forgive the film's lapses. Not a great film but one with a lot of worthy ideas splashed around on the screen of a project that often feels lost in its struggle for direction. Grady Harp, February 08